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If Putin Orders a Nuke, Will His Generals Obey?

As military strategists in the West war-game a possible nuclear escalation by Russian President Vladimir Putin, they’re also pondering the role disobedience could play. What if Putin gives the order to nuke, but others in the chain of command refuse to execute? Should the US and its allies try to sway those individuals now?

Scenarios in which insubordination — from conscientious objection to outright mutiny — come into play aren’t far-fetched. If Putin were to escalate, he’d do it with so-called tactical warheads. These are currently in storage and would first have to be transported to launch bases and mounted on missiles. Dozens of officers would have to sign off and relay the order, knowing that Western spy agencies would be watching them at every step. 

We can assume that many of these officers will have qualms. They may privately oppose Putin’s war against Ukraine. They may not want to be complicit in mass murder. They may fear an uncontrolled escalation leading to Armageddon. Or they may simply be aware that one option for US President Joe Biden is to answer a Russian nuke with a conventional military strike that wipes out the base that fired the missile. Executing a launch order could well be suicidal.

Another potential for disobedience looms in Belarus, where the Russians are again massing troops to threaten a new front against Ukraine. In one scenario, Alexander Lukashenko, dictator of Minsk and minion of Moscow, would send his Belarusian forces to fight with the Russians against the Ukrainians. 

“I’m sure that he would give the order to the Belarusian army to participate in this invasion — if he was sure they would fight,” reckons Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the exiled leader of Belarus’ pro-democracy opposition movement. But Lukashenko’s not sure. Both he and Putin apparently consider mass insubordination in the Belarusian ranks possible, if not probable. 

After Lukashenko stole his last “election” in 2020, huge numbers of Belarusians took to the streets to try to topple him; they also sided with their Ukrainian neighbors in leaning toward the European Union and freedom. Lukashenko cracked down brutally. If he now ordered his troops to shoot at Ukrainians, they might just switch sides and fire at the hated dictator’s goons instead. Or they might defect to fight for Kyiv. 

History teems with precedents for decisive acts of military disobedience — by individuals or entire regiments. During the Battle of Leipzig in 1813, the entire contingent of Saxons fighting for Napoleon suddenly turned around on the battlefield and joined the coalition against him. In March 1917, the first of Russia’s two revolutions that year began in earnest when elite units of the Imperial Guard joined the demonstrators.

Especially in the nuclear context, even a single individual can make the difference. Stanislav Petrov was the officer on duty early one morning in 1983 when the Soviet Union’s computers detected incoming atomic missiles from the US. He had orders to immediately launch the retaliatory strike. Acting on a hunch — he later said he put the odds at 50-50 — he instead decided that the alarm was an error. For several terrifying seconds, he stared at screens flashing “Launch.” He didn’t launch. Nor did he report the alarm to his superiors. By disobeying, he saved the world.

Individual soldiers have to make such decisions of conscience all the time, even when the stakes aren’t nuclear. In 2011, two colonels in the Libyan Arab Republic Air Force were ordered to bomb civilians in Benghazi. They instead turned their Mirage F1 jets around and landed on Malta, where they requested asylum. Two days after that, the pilot and copilot of another jet received the same order. They ejected and let their plane crash.

The tension between blind obedience and insubordination is as old as organized warfare. Top brass understandably fear any rupture in the lines of authority — it could lead to a breakdown in discipline, order and the ability to fight. But slavish obeisance is worse. The Germans who perpetrated the Holocaust later claimed they “were just following orders.” Neither the judges at the Nuremburg Trials nor the world bought that excuse. Drawing a direct lesson, postwar Germany today enshrines disobedience in specific circumstances as a soldier’s duty rather than its dereliction.

Russians in the era of Putin must ask themselves questions similar to the dilemmas Germans faced during the Third Reich. What is their role in their country’s crimes? How much will they allow themselves to know? Will they stand up when it matters? Will they disobey when they must? Those who do — as Stanislav Petrov once did — may just save the world.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

We Can’t Give Putin His Off-Ramp: Andreas Kluth

Putin’s War Hawks Are No Longer In Step: Leonid Bershidsky

An Unhinged Putin Is A Warning to China and Xi: Clara Ferreira Marques

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. A former editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist, he is author of “Hannibal and Me.”

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